The mere mention of the word ‘bacteria’ is sufficient to make most of us think of illness and disease. Indeed, combatting bacteria, or ‘germs’, is something of a societal obsession. From advertising slogans – “Kills all known germs dead” to X-Ray Spex classic 1978 punk hit, Germ Free Adolescents, bacteria are reviled and to be combated.

Or are they?

Bacterial World is a fascinating new exhibition at Oxford University Museum of Natural History seeking to break long-held myths and enlighten visitors about the good that bacteria do.

Incorporating more than 55 exhibits – spanning monumental art, geological and deep-sea specimens, film, and digital interactives – Bacterial World demonstrates how these tiny organisms wield huge influence over us, shaping the past, present and future of life on our planet.

The exhibition also features items generously loaned from institutions including the Wellcome Collection, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the Natural History Museum, London.

Bacteria were the earliest form of life on Earth and exist practically everywhere today; from the deepest oceans to the most inhospitable deserts and even in the clouds. Bacteria survive, thrive, fight and die by the trillion every moment. These remarkable organisms can swim using nanoscopic motors, and battle with spears. They sense, communicate, and remember. What’s more, there are as many bacterial as human cells within our bodies.

Bacterial World reveals to visitors how science is lifting the lid on the secret lives and hidden stories of the smallest of organisms and their influence on us and our planet.

One of the most striking elements of the exhibition – and at 28 metres long, by far the largest – is a giant inflatable E. coli sculpture created by renowned artist Luke Jerram. Suspended from the roof, in itself a dramatic feat of engineering, Jerram’s E. coli is five million times bigger than the real thing.

Geological fossils in the exhibition show evidence that bacteria oxygenated the Earth 2.4 billion years ago. Deep sea specimens reveal entire ecosystems; where, down in the darkness, bacteria use a cocktail of chemicals to generate energy in a possible echo of how life first began.

Bacterial World also features a display of animals and plants which live symbiotically with bacteria, to create bioluminescence that lures prey or produces camouflage (such as bobtail squid, lanternfish and ponyfish); to support diet (rabbits, koalas, leafcutter ants, leeches, vampire vats); and in order to create a toxin for hunting or defence (arrow worms, blue-ringed octopuses, pufferfish, armadillos and horseshoe crabs, to name but a few).

The section devoted to the ‘Top 10 Bacteria that Changed the World’ shows the positive impact bacteria have had, and continue to have, on the planet. They also help to fight disease: Bacterial World reveals how the Wolbachia bacterium is being used to combat malaria.

The exhibition explores how bacteria might help us to tackle some of our biggest environmental problems.

Computer gamers, meanwhile, will love the chance to play Gut Wars, a specially developed game in which they set bacteria armed with different weapons.